Sales of new cars and trucks are way down because of the recession, but Americans haven’t stopped driving — they’re just keeping their old wheels a little longer.
Of course, the older your car, the more prone it is to breaking down, and the less likely it is to be under warranty. Which means that, if something goes wrong, you might suddenly need to shell out several thousand dollars for repairs — bad news if you’ve already maxed out your credit cards.
How can you keep your vehicle running longer and avoid unexpected expenses? We asked Dan Bouchard, owner of Bouchard and Sons Garage on San Remo Drive in South Burlington. Seven Days theater critic Elisabeth Crean credits him with keeping her Mazda running for 17 years.
Bouchard’s father and brothers started the auto repair business in 1976; Dan Bouchard joined them 30 years ago, in 1979. Today he’s the last Bouchard left in the shop. Here’s his advice for getting the most out of your motorized vehicle.
Treat your old car like a new car.
Bouchard points out that, when people buy a brand-new car, they’re careful to take it in for the recommended service. But the routine often doesn’t last. “After the car gets to about 45 or 50 thousand,” he says, “people ignore that stuff.”
That’s a mistake, Bouchard says. Doing planned, preventative maintenance — flushing your coolant, replacing worn-out belts, etc. — is cheaper than waiting until something breaks. By the time you’re stranded on the side of the road, the damage is more extensive.
“Open up the owners’ manual,” Bouchard instructs. “Look at the recommended services. Some of them are a little ridiculous, like retightening the driveshaft bolts, or whatever. But when you get to the point where you need to change your timing belt, you should do that.”
Change your fluids.
When it’s time to take your car in for an oil change, don’t just check to see that you’ve still got oil and decide you can wait, especially in the winter. The viscosity of the oil can be as significant as the amount. “It’s important to keep good fresh oil in the engine in the wintertime so it doesn’t get thick and gooey,” says Bouchard. “It causes a lot of damage when it’s cold.”
And oil isn’t the only fluid you should keep your eye on. There’s also brake fluid, automatic transmission fluid, differential fluid and antifreeze, or coolant.
Coolant is particularly important, because it keeps your engine from overheating. “The worst thing you can do is run your coolant low,” he says. Even if the level looks fine, you should still replace it periodically. “The fluid gets alkaline,” he says. “It deteriorates the engine.” Old antifreeze can also cause problems with your water pump and gasket.
Don’t wait for the little warning light on your dashboard to alert you to pay attention to your fluids. By the time the light has come on, Bouchard says, “You’ve sort of missed the boat.”
Repair rust holes.
Bouchard also does auto body repair, and says that’s one area where people are cutting back. Lately he’s been seeing many customers get insurance money to fix damage from a collision and then decide to pocket the cash. “We call ’em up and they say, ‘Well, you know, we’re going to live with the dent,’” he says. “We’re finding that a lot of people are not repairing their bodywork. They’re only doing what’s necessary.”
Bouchard suggests that fixing rust holes is a necessary repair, especially in Vermont, where long winters and copious amounts of road salt can corrode your car quickly. “That’s what really kills the car these days,” he emphasizes. “The rust.”
Wash your car.
Going through the car wash might seem like a luxury, but Bouchard recommends cleaning your car periodically to stop rust holes before they start. “Get the salt off of it,” he says.
Keep the tires inflated.
“Have you ever tried to push a car that has soft tires?” Bouchard asks. “It’s impossible.” He points out that you’ll use less gas if you inflate your tires properly, which saves you money at the gas pump. It’s good for the environment, too.
It’s also safer. “A hard tire cuts through slush and ice better,” Bouchard says. That means you’ll be less likely to hydroplane on slick road surfaces.
All new cars now come equipped with a tire-pressure monitoring system, which tells you if your tire pressure is dangerously low. A law passed in the wake of the Firestone tire recall in the 1990s mandated that change.
But if you’re still driving a model built prior to 2008, you need to check the tires yourself. Bouchard says you can buy an air-pressure gauge for $5.
Don’t want to spend even that much? “The simplest way to do it is kick your tires,” Bouchard says. “A nice hard tire is going to feel like a snare drum. It takes a second.”